News

Recycling Perfected — but Formalized?

Glenn Otis Brown, March 8th, 2004

Questions of the day: Hip-hop artists and DJs have long made a practice of inviting remixes by releasing acapella or instrumental tracks. What stops them from formalizing that invitation with, say, a CC license? Is it that the music-biz lawyers want to reserve the right to hold remixers hostage, in the event they start to become too successful, or stray too far aesthetically? If that’s not the explanation, what is? There’s something about the practice that’s reminiscent of the Speakeasy or back-room gambling joint: when a vibrant sampling underground is uncovered, copyright holders are shocked, shocked to learn the law has been broken.

Related news: The New York Times today inventoried the growing catalog of Jay-Z mash-ups, from the oh-so-scandalous Grey Album *(Jay-Z + Beatles) to Double Black Album (Jay-Z + Metallica), plus about ten more. I’m glad the whole controversy has everyone talking about copyright and art, but it’s a shame that the Grey Album has gotten all the attention. Some of these other mashes are better-executed as records, in my view, if less grand in high concept. I think Illmind’s Black and Tan Album works pretty well, for example, even though its samples are less familiar than the Grey Album’s.

All this makes it more striking to hear people say that remixing is not music, that the manipulation of sound recordings is less worthy an art form than the manipulation of abstract notes and rhythms. Of course rock-and-roll once faced the same criticism — it wasn’t real music. And then came the Beatles, who by no means invented rock but certainly perfected it, so that even the old foagies fogies eventually came to take its merit for granted. Will it require a masterpiece of mash for remix culture finally to win legitimacy? Who will be the Beatles of bricolage?

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